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Starfish Decoy

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Starfish was the codename given to a system of Special Fire or SF decoys established early in World War II.

Created by Colonel Sir John F Turner, Royal Engineers, a number of different ground based decoys were established around the country, with the intention of deceiving enemy bombers and reconnaissance aircraft. Day decoys were designated as K Sites, and Night decoys as Q Sites. Night decoys were further classified as QF for Fire sites, and QL for Lighting sites. Starfish, Special Fire or SF decoys denoted Civil decoys, while those denoted as Q sites were military, being Army or Navy decoy sites.

Using techniques borrowed from stage and film, the decoy sites simulated factories, railway yards, docks, urban layouts such as cities and towns, airfields, and the effects of incendiaries and bombs. Many of these sites were designed and built by Sound City Films at Shepperton Studios, whose General Manager was Campbeltown born Scot Norman Louden.

A number of sites were located in Scotland, with four being established around Edinburgh, nine around Glasgow and Lanarkshire, and one on the north end of the Isle of Bute. The decoys used a number of special effects to achieve their aims, for example: lighting would be laid out in the shape of streets (or runways as appropriate), and left on until attackers had a chance to see them from a distance, then extinguished as if in response to an air raid warning. The real area would have been blacked out well in advance, thanks to advance warning by Britain's closely guarded secret radar system, and sightings reported by the Observer Corps. Flash bombs would be detonated to simulate tram power lines arcing, and the Starfish sites would ignite various forms of controlled fire, laid out to simulate the plan view of shipyards and production facilities, which again would have been blacked out in advance of the attacker's arrival. The fires could be relatively simple fuels pools, ignited as required; fire baskets containing materials soaked in an mixture oil and pitch; and more sophisticated burners, where burning oil and water could be mixed, resulting in a brilliant flare as the water changes to steam and expands rapidly, converting the dense, slow-burning fuel oil into a fast-burning mist.

While the technique was effective against targeted bombing raids, especially at night when there were no other visual cues for bomb aimers or navigators to refer to, the decoys were rendered ineffective by large scale area bombing, such as that seen during the Clydebank Blitz of March 1941.

Related deception

Part of the D-Day preparations involved tricking the Germans into believing that an attack would be launched from Scotland into Norway, and this plan included the display of dummy Boston and Spitfire aircraft at Peterhead, Fraserburgh and Fordoun. This was further reinforced by a fleet of vans carrying radio transmitters, travelling around the country and passing messages from various locations to give the appearance of troops being massed in the area. These were all part of Operation Fortitude North.

Local media article

In 2108 (and repeated in 2019), a local Glasgow media site published an article describing the decoy cities which were deployed to help protect Glasgow during World War II.

The Clydebank Blitz took place over two nights in March 1941, with the Luftwaffe bombs killing 528 people and damaging almost all of the area's 12,000 homes.

The north west Glasgow spot was, of course, targeted because of its shipbuilding prowess and numerous factories - and is remembered to this day as an unspeakable tragedy from Glasgow.

In fact, it wasn't the only area to suffer damage from German bombs - at least 11 air attacks hit buildings in Maryhill, Kelvinside, Hyndland, the Barrowlands, Govan and Knightswood.

Still, Glasgow had a plan up its sleeve - a decoy which may well have saved the city we know and love today.

Such attacks occurred despite the British Government's (highly secretive) attempts to provide night-time decoys to divert the German bombers away from large urban targets across the country, including right here in Glasgow.

This formed part of plans instigated by Colonel J F Turner’s Air Ministry following the mass bombing of Britain’s cities in the autumn of 1940, especially that of the Coventry Blitz. Dubbed ‘one of the best kept secrets of the war’, the plans sought to replicate burning cities in areas away from real urban targets.

Alongside patterns of electric lights and pyrotechnics, tons of wood and indeed anything combustible, was gathered to make improvised bonfires, while steel tanks, troughs, pipes and grids and different flammable materials were used to create random fire effects to resemble burning houses, factories and power stations.

n extension of Turner’s decoy programme for airfields and factories (code named ‘Q sites’), a total of 237 decoys were built to protect 81 towns and cities across the UK, constructed around four miles from their protection target and at least one mile from any other settlement.

A total of 16 so called ‘Starfish’ decoy sites were built as part of the Glasgow and Clyde Anti-Aircraft Defence network, including locations near Eaglesham, Condorrat, Paisley (at Gleniffer Braes), with a decoy village also built by the Royal Navy on the Isle of Bute. All which worked to lure the German bombers away from strategic areas in the city and the Clydeside.

-The incredible story of the decoy 'city' designed to save Glasgow during WWII[1]

The article concludes with a statement that, "By 1944, decoy sites across the UK had been attacked more than 700 times by German aircraft".


1 The incredible story of the decoy 'city' designed to save Glasgow during WWII Retreived 30 March 2019.

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